language, politics

Reading Trump


Many of the usual experts confess that they don’t get Trump: despite their repeated attempts to make sense of him, and despite the authority and expertise they bring to the task, he won’t make sense; his behavior, especially his communicative behavior, simply doesn’t work by the rules.


Their problem lies in their background, which limits their understanding and expectations. Most political experts have been educated as political scientists and/or politicians, historians, or economists. That background provides them with expectations that have worked well in understanding other presidents: they assume that their subject’s behavior has underlying it a rational strategy for the short and long-term; and they further assume that people in positions of power and influence act according to their belief (correct or not) that the strategy will bring long-term benefits to their nation. So experts see politicians as rational actors whose moves are predictable and explicable.


But Trump is another story, a narrative the plot of which the pundits, try as they may, cannot follow. They cannot read him. He is Greek to them, but would be Navaho to Aristotle. Again and again, he goes out of his way to insult people that others in his position would be trying to humor or befriend. His insults tend toward the crude, infantile, and personal. Kim Jong-Un is “Little Rocketman.” Germany under Angela Merkel has become a client state of Russia. Europe has lost its culture (Trump gets a twofer here, smacking both Europe and Islam). Theresa May is too dumb to take his advice. NATO is a bunch of cheaters.


It’s no accident that both of his most recent targets were women heads of state: Trump just can’t bear the idea of a powerful woman, and goes ballistic when he encounters one. (Just in case you were wondering why Amy Coney Barrett was passed over for SCOTUS.)


So he lashed out at the NATO meeting and in England at people who had been perfectly civil to him, and whose goodwill this country will always need. That would have been shocking enough, except that in the last 18 months, we have become inured to this kind of behavior. But the strangest part, now as before, was yet to come.


After the NATO meeting, he was at pains to declare that it had gone very well, he had gotten along “great” with everyone, it was a huge success – thanks, of course, to him. After his savaging of May, he went on at great length about how much he respected her and what a “great woman” (itself a sexist slur) she was. Both of these turnabouts came within a few hours of his abusive rants. So how can the totality of his behavior in both instances be understood – especially since both had been extensively reported on and available on audio? No rational person would imagine he had any form of credible deniability, and yet Trump declared he had never made the statements he could be heard making. Claims to the contrary were – you guessed it – “fake news.” The gurus announced their befuddlement, as well they might. How on earth can someone committed to rational explanations account for Trump’s repeated bizarre behavior? Even a semi-competent liar refrains from lying blatantly about what is fresh in everyone’s minds and readily available from many sources?


The trick is to understand that Trump plays by a different set of rules from any normal politician, or human being – if in fact he can even be said to be playing by “rules.” He seems blithely unaware that he is insulting people, especially women, even as he seems to be under some a compulsion to do so. It’s not that he doesn’t understand what an “insult” is: he himself has a skin like an onion, and any insult he feels has been directed at him must be avenged. Hence any candidate who has the gall to oppose him is, over a year later, still “crooked.” He just can’t let the insult go. So he grasps the concept, at least as it applies to himself.


But this understanding doesn’t carry over to other people. He seems genuinely unaware that he has committed a couple of shocking breaches of etiquette, personal and global at once. The pundits can’t make sense of it. Their backgrounds provide no insight, alas! If he had this awareness, he would be unable to (glibly and smilingly) talk about his “great” relationships with Merkel and May without a hint of remorse, or a word of apology. His later words of (faint and ambiguous) praise are not, despite pundits’ claims, “apologies. They do not display what a proper apology must: admission of wrongdoing and a promise to do better in the future. So there are two important speech acts that Trump cannot handle: insults and apologies.


Yet the experts try to make sense of the senseless, and attempt to interpret Trump’s incompetence as if there were a “strategy” or a “plan” behind it. This is illustrated especially well in the New York Times reportage (of Saturday, July 14) of Trump’s European trip (and “trip” would be the felicitous word).


As usual, an inordinate number of column inches is devoted to the doings of the Donald: the hissy-fit followed by the about face at NATO; his attack on May followed by peculiar “praise” in England. (There is also brief mention of his failure to bow to the Queen and his getting in front of her as they were walking together, both breaches of etiquette; and his pushing of his Scottish golf course, a presidential no-no.) The confusion of the media as it tries to makes sense of POTUS’s behavior is illustrated in a couple of Times headlines:


In Trump’s Chaos, Europe Sees a Strategy: Divide and Conquer.

Trump Tries to Mend Fences….


The problem is that there is no indication of any “strategy,” nor any reason to believe that Trump is “trying” to do anything. Both words imply intentionality, the conscious aim to achieve a specific result. But having a tantrum at one moment and then trying a different tack a little later does not in any way manifest intentionality. All these behaviors show is that Trump is a creature of the moment: he is what he is right now, and can become something completely different (with full sincerity) a moment later. How can we understand him? We must abandon rationality-based explanatory theories. The conundrum can be resolved by understanding that Donald John Trump has no theory of mind.


A “theory of mind” is what enables normal humans over the age of 3 or 4 to understand the minds of others: the knowledge that those others do not necessarily know what they know, that those others might feel differently from themselves about many things. Others do not necessarily share one’s own beliefs, desires, or intentions, and part of being a rational adult is trying to figure out how those others are likely to respond to one’s own behavior and act accordingly.


The absence of a theory of mind helps explain Trump’s obliviousness to the damage he causes, as manifested by his repeated assertions, after behaving offensively, that he and his targets are great friends and are getting along really well. Without a theory of mind, he is forced to look to superficial representations of conventional emotions, reading them as if they represented something genuine. So when someone he has offended, for diplomatic reasons, shakes hands, smiles, and pats him on the back – gestures intended and understood by most of us as purely conventional — Trump takes them as literal. He can only read what’s on the surface: there is no reality underneath it for him.


So, to understand Trump, it is essential to abandon many beloved and long-time assumptions about how to be human and what humans mean by what we say and do. The pundits have repeatedly proven unable to do so, because the fields of knowledge with which they are familiar cannot account for the mystery of Trump’s mind. To do so we must look to other fields to explain what we encounter.


We must understand, first of all, that Trump has no long-term strategies and is unable to even conceive of the need for planning for future contingencies. Like a small child, he has no conception of a “future” that is different from, yet crucially connected to, the present moment. An infant lives exclusively in the present, and so does Donald J. Trump. So the notion of climate change and the need to strategize to minimize its effects is nonsense to him. The prospect of nuclear war is no more than a lot of bang-bang, boom-boom with no bad consequences – in fact, no consequences.


Futurelessness is bad enough when it afflicts an ordinary human being. But one of the extra-constitutional jobs of POTUS is planning so as to enable your country to successfully deal with future, still unimaginable, contingencies. A president who cannot do this is a clear and present danger. Pundits who cannot explain the direness of our current circumstances are not reliable experts. We need to turn elsewhere to help us understand the workings of the mind of a 72-year-old three year old. What kinds of new experts are needed?


First, abnormal psychologists and psychiatrists: people trained to analyze and work with bizarre behavior and manage those who manifest it;


Secondly, specialists in early childhood development, who can explain how someone who lacks adult cognitive ability is apt to behave under stressful circumstances and, like the abnormal psychologists, figure out what to do if someone with these kinds of cognitive shortcomings turns up in a position of power and control;


And finally, linguists, and particularly linguistic pragmaticists, who understand speech acts like insults and apologies, and have thought about their normal use and abuse, and can explain (as I have tried to do above) what is going on when someone seems unable to use language meaningfully and appropriately.